Theater Review: TIGER STYLE! (South Coast Rep)

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by Tony Frankel on May 24, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Tiger Style! at South Coast Rep is refreshing for many reasons. First, it’s really funny. Playwright Mike Lew crafts his script like a super-smart teenager, mixing insights about the Asian community with cutting humor, f-bombs, “dude,” “bro” and some other words one would only find on Urban Dictionary. It’s a style that reminded me of Lew’s contemporary Qui Nguyen, whose Vietgone premiered at SCR in 2015, the same year that Lew’s Tiger Style! was first staged in Atlanta. Second, it addresses race in America — via two grown-up siblings — as it pertains to the characters’ experience with their traditional upbringing and current frustrations as modern Chinese Americans. As such, the main characters’ search for their place in society is universal. Third, there’s social commentary galore about prejudice without the need to go for the jugular of white-liberal guilt. One character bemoans that whenever race relations come up in America, it refers to Black and White only.

John Norman Schneider and Amy Kim Waschke

Life-challenged brother and sister, Albert and Jennifer Chen, are both very successful professionally (she’s an oncologist, he’s a $75,000-a-year software techie), but when things start to fall apart in their lives (she is dumped by a loser; he is passed on a promotion) they both blame, of course, Mom & Dad. Their not-so-successful personal lives are clearly the fault of Asian tiger parenting: harsh, demanding and emotionally unsupportive — a perfect way to raise high-achieving children, right? (cellist Albert and pianist Jennifer once played Carnegie Hall). So when these identity-free, squabbling, third-generation Chinese American Irvine roommates march on over to their parents house demanding an apology, they are stymied by their folks’ laid-back, annoyed shut-up-and-deal-with-it reaction.

Derek Manson and John Norman Schneider

Act II gets pretty meta and madcap as underachieving Albert and overachieving Jenny arrive in China for a “Freedom Asian Tour” to rid themselves from Asian tokenism back in the States. A spy, a matchmaker, a general and a face-slapping cousin come into play as the siblings are indoctrinated by an authoritarian regime.

John Norman Schneider, Emiy Juroda and Amy Kim Waschke

Jon Norman Schneider has played Albert before, so he has sad-sack perfected — he’s not a nerd, but can be quite a pushover, perfectly so. Amy Kim Waschke nails Jennifer’s frustration with, well, everything, but a little nuance and funnier bits could have helped here — the character gets awfully shrill, and Waschke should have made her more palatable. Emily Kuroda has also appeared in this play before, and she’s well-cast in multiple roles — her face-slapping Cousin Chen in China is a hoot. Derek Manson is quite dexterous as slacker Russ The Bus, surfer-dude Reggie, and — unrecognizable from his other roles — a Customs Guy.

Daisuke Tsuji and John Norman Schneider

Sadly, the great Ryun Yu was out due to COVID, but a miracle arrived in his place. With just a few days of rehearsal, Daisuke Tsuji (Cambodian Rock Band) was far and away the most engaging actor of the evening. With script in hand for four roles, he somehow never missed a beat, including a slew of costume changes (designer Hyun Sook Kim‘s vertically challenged dangling legs outfit for General Tso was HI-larious). But here is where Daisuke (pronounced dice-SU-kay) and his castmate Derek rose above the other three: they didn’t come off as ever forcing comedy. Daisuke was cool as they come: with an eyebrow lift or a slight pursing of the lips, he actually created defined characters that we loved. At one point, he took a pose, and then whipped out his script from beneath his cape as if it was something his General always did for effect. Sure, an audience is always behind an understudy, but this tiny little maneuver got applause! Mind you, Ryun Yu is also a genius, and is returning to the show,

Derek Manson and Amy Kim Waschke

OK, the play isn’t perfect: it builds to an ending it can’t sustain, has some odd tonal shifts, and while Ralph B. Peña‘s fast-paced direction is almost mandatory for this script, that doesn’t mean staging at pretty much the same level throughout the play, which can lag out of sheer exhaustion. But it’s still a helluva lotta fun. so all is forgiven. And the combination of Se Oh‘s cardboard set, Hana Kim‘s colorful projections, Tom Ontiveros‘s bright lights, and Fabian Obispo‘s delightful sound place us squarely in a moving graphic novel. I recommend it — not just for Asians — for a very diverting time. Plus, you will discover why someone who makes 75 grand a year is considered an underachiever. That’s news to me.

photos by ​​Jenny Graham/SCR

Tiger Style!
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
ends on June 12, 2022
for tickets, call 714.708.5555 or visit SCR

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